My wife and I have watched our fair share of television during the pandemic lockdown. Reruns of the original Law & Order are consoling, but even they wear out their welcome. In searching for something less jurisprudential, we decided to stream the popular British comedy Doc Martin, an old favorite.
Martin Clunes plays Dr. Martin Ellingham, a successful vascular surgeon at a prestigious London hospital who inexplicably develops a severe case of hemophobia. He panics and often vomits when exposed to even small amounts of blood. His medical career in jeopardy, he accepts the position of general practitioner in Portwenn, a beautiful seaside village in Cornwall, where he had spent summers with his beloved Aunt Joan, a struggling farmer. His parents were ghouls who evidently treated him like an orphan, sending him off to boarding school when he was six or seven.
He is the only doctor in the village, and adapting himself to the practice of medicine outside of the operating room is a difficult, if often hilarious, process. The problem is that “the doc,” as the villagers call him, suffers from something akin to Asperger’s. He has almost no social skills or filters, and compulsively blurts out exactly what he is thinking. What he is thinking is usually rude and hurtful. He chastises patients about their weight and other ailments, brusquely reminding them that poor health choices lead to early death. On the other hand, he is a brilliant doctor who cares about helping people and who moves effortlessly from one medical miracle to the next. The barbed remarks and resentful behavior of villagers and patients seem to make no impression on him.
These encounters are usually cringe-inducing but very funny. Clunes rarely cracks a smile while stealing every scene and getting nearly every laugh. The close-knit village has its share of gently buffoonish characters, such as a benignly incompetent policeman and the ever-hopeful Bert Large, a schemer with a singular talent for running every business venture into the ground. Portwenn’s middle-aged pharmacist has a delirious crush on Martin, which he is utterly oblivious to.
At the heart of the series is Martin’s relationship with Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz), the village’s primary-school teacher and eventual headmistress. She is attracted to him, and then completely smitten after he demonstrates his medical skill by diagnosing and successfully treating several seriously ill students. Louisa is empathetic and forthright, while Martin is obtuse. In one episode she kisses him passionately in the back seat of a taxi. When they unlock lips, he looks at her clinically and asks how long she has suffered from bad breath. He then recommends a mouthwash. While the attraction is mutual, the courtship is tortuous. When Louisa, pregnant with their child, experiences dizziness and stomach pain, Martin rushes to her side. After he prescribes medication, there is a poignant moment between them, and she gets the impression that Martin is about to declare his love. Instead, he hands her a small container and says, “I’ll need a stool sample.”